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FCC commissioner derides US community broadband projects as ‘threat’ to free speech

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According to online tech news site Motherboard, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Mike O’Rielly used a speech to attack community broadband projects as an “ominous threat” to the First Amendment, a claim which appears baseless.

Municipal or community broadband networks are deployed by a local authority to provide connectivity to a local area while circumventing reliance on private telecommunications giants. Municipal broadband has been found to provide cheaper (sometimes free) and more reliable service than alternatives and has been proposed as a means of closing the ‘digital divide’, while supporting the growth of ‘smart’ towns and cities by providing high-speed Wi-Fi without the expense of private contracts.

In 2000, the FCC explicitly endorsed municipal broadband networks, citing them as a possible solution to failure by the private sector to provide competitive broadband services. There are now more than 750 community broadband networks in the US.

Following the FCC’s recent repeal of Obama-era federal net neutrality regulations – which had forced internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all web content equally – community broadband projects began to be seen as a promising means of continuing to protect net neutrality.

Now, a Republican FCC commissioner has openly attacked these public broadband networks, claiming that local authorities force users to accept terms of service which limit their freedom of expression by suppressing conservative political views.

“I would be remiss if my address omitted a discussion of a lesser-known but particularly ominous threat to the First Amendment in the age of the internet: state-owned and operated broadband networks,” said O’Reilly, as reported by Motherboard. “Municipalities such as Chattanooga, Tennessee and Wilson, North Carolina, have been notorious for their use of speech codes in the terms of service of state-owned networks, prohibiting users from transmitting content that falls into amorphous categories like ‘hateful’ or ‘threatening’.”

O’Reilly was speaking as a guest of the telecommunications-funded Media Institute, which opposed federal net neutrality regulations, describing them as a “danger to the openness of the Internet”.

However, there is no evidence that either the Chattanooga or Wilson municipal broadband networks have terms of service which limit the freedom of expression of its users beyond the standard restraints on hate speech, which are commonly used by most ISPs.

EPB Broadband, which is owned by the city of Chattanooga’s power utility, was found to be the highest-rated ISP in the US for reliability, speed and value in a recent Consumer Reporters survey. Its strong performance has forced major ISPs (including AT&T and Comcast) to reduce their pricing for high-speed fibre in the area.

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